College of DuPage spent more than $200,000 on positive pre-election mailers, documents show

 
 
Updated 5/13/2015 7:31 AM
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  • Postcards sent by the College of DuPage to thousands of households have drawn fire from new board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton, who has called some of the mailings examples of electioneering.

      Postcards sent by the College of DuPage to thousands of households have drawn fire from new board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton, who has called some of the mailings examples of electioneering. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

The College of DuPage spent more than $200,000 on thousands of glossy mailers that put a positive spin on the school and arrived in mailboxes in the weeks immediately before the April election, according to documents obtained by the Daily Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.

New COD board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton said one of the mailers arrived at homes in DuPage County and parts of Will and Cook counties just three days before the April 7 election in which her endorsed slate of three candidates, all calling for major reforms at the Glen Ellyn school, was elected. She criticized the timing of the fliers as "electioneering." She said she put a halt to the distribution of two other fliers that were scheduled to be mailed in early May shortly after being named chairwoman of the board.

The scheduling of the pre-election mailers has prompted state lawmakers to consider prohibiting any unit of local government from sending "promotional" materials for as many as three months before an election.

"You're not supposed to use public funds to persuade people politically, and three days before an election is definitely in the persuading area," Hamilton said.

College records show COD sent two postcards before the election, as well as an edition of Impact magazine, a publication of the college's Office of Marketing and Communications. Two other postcards arrived at homes after the election and still two others were scrapped at Hamilton's direction.

COD spokesman Randall Samborn declined to address allegations of electioneering, saying only, "That activity will never happen under the newly elected board."

Joe Moore, the college's vice president of marketing and communications, said the college mails dozens of postcards every year, promoting everything from study-abroad programs to on-campus open houses. In most cases the mailers are sent to targeted areas in COD's district, and the college's in-house printer in the basement of the Berg Instructional Center is able to handle the load. But in the case of the four 6-by-11-inch postcards sent districtwide in March and April, an outside printer was needed because of the quantity, Moore said.

"We send out mailings all the time to various audiences," Moore said. The spring postcards "certainly weren't last-minute."

Days after she became chairwoman, Hamilton said she directed acting interim President Joseph Collins to hold back two additional postcards that were scheduled to be sent in early May.

"I said, 'Are any more of the pieces coming out?' and he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'You need to halt them.' He said, 'You just saved your constituents $80,000,'" Hamilton said Tuesday.

Invoices show the college paid $26,000 in March for two postcards to be printed by Schaumburg-based Precise Printing Network, and $57,300 on postage.

COD ordered 377,000 copies of each postcard: one promoting summer and fall registration at "the fastest-growing community college" outside California, the other about the college's financial record.

The latter is the postcard that Hamilton says arrived three days before the election. It contrasts COD's $178 million reserve fund against Chicago, state and federal debt that reaches into the trillions. The mailer also states the college has implemented internal controls to monitor spending and ensure compliance.

Hamilton and her allies have questioned the college's financial management under the leadership of President Robert Breuder, whom the new board put on administrative leave April 30. A series of federal, state and county investigations -- as well as an internal probe by a law firm hired by the board -- are examining the college's spending practices.

"We have an investigation underway which is questioning financial oversight, and to make that assertion independent of the board and without the board's evaluation is completely inappropriate," Hamilton said. COD also paid $88,455 for 390,000 copies of Impact magazine to be printed and spent $33,300 on postage.

It paid Pendleton, Indiana-based Powerful Appeals Inc. $3,000 for help with research, writing and editing the magazine.

Moore said it's not unusual for his marketing office to contract with that company to work on portions of the magazine. The magazine originally was supposed to be eight pages but was increased to 12. It included stories on "Fiscal Fitness: Running COD like a business benefits students, taxpayers," as well as a feature story on how culinary and hospitality students gain experience at the controversial on-campus Waterleaf restaurant and the Inn at Water's Edge hotel. The professionally run restaurant has come under scrutiny after it was revealed it is losing about $500,000 a year and that school administrators and board members spent taxpayers' money on meals and drinks for themselves. Students help run the restaurant as many as two nights a week.

Hamilton said she doesn't have a problem with the college promoting its "academic reputation" -- the theme of the final postcard that arrived in mailboxes after the election -- but she doesn't want public money being used to take positions on controversial topics before an election.

The College of DuPage Foundation, the college's fundraising arm, paid $26,290 for the printing of the two fliers sent after the election. While the college paid the postage for those postcards, Breuder requested the foundation's help with printing costs, according to Matt Butterfield, a foundation spokesman.

Butterfield said the foundation often assists the college with promotional materials "when there's mutual benefit and interest," including materials for homecoming, community outreach events, lifelong learning events, an alumni speakers series, and conferences and events for the Center for Entrepreneurship.

Samborn said it was in the college and foundation's "mutual interest to promote a positive image of the college and to assist with community outreach."

After receiving one of the COD mailers days before the April election, state Sen. Michael Connelly, a Lisle Republican, sponsored legislation that would extend the period by which units of local government, including community colleges, are prevented from sending promotional materials before an election. "I thought (the mailer) was an attempt to influence the consolidated election -- probably the most contested COD election in my lifetime," Connelly said.

For elections in April, local governments would not be allowed to send materials starting on Jan. 1, though they could still mail bills, schedules of events, course-related materials and financial aid information. The legislation passed the Senate and is now being considered by the House. Similar bans are in place for Illinois constitutional officers and legislators.

COD Trustee Joseph Wozniak -- who is not allied with Hamilton -- said he was not familiar with the specific mailers. Trustees Erin Birt and Dianne McGuire, who also aren't aligned with Hamilton, could not be reached for comment.

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